We all know how much we love dance as an art form. It’s freeing, beautiful and open to so many possibilities. However there are sadly some ugly aspects to the dance world that I’m hoping we are all able to change one student, one class at a time!
Body image issues and eating disorders are nothing new in the dance world, however I do fear it is becoming more and more predominant every year. I myself didn’t start dancing until I was 17 years old and by 18 I was on my first diet. I was a dance major who not only saw, but also struggled with a lot of body image issues throughout the years. Even today as a teacher of 27+ years I can only take so much of staring at myself in the mirror for hours on end.
As teachers we are huge role models for our students. What we say, how we act and how we react is seen by every student we teach. So how do we change the status quo? We do so by doing what we do best…. TEACH!
My daughter has been dancing since she was 2.5 years old and she was on the competition team by the age of 7. By the time she was 8 she was already having body image issues, comparing herself to others, worried how she looked in costumes and so on. At the age of 15 she was officially diagnosed with anorexia. She struggles on a daily basis with her body image and has had to take breaks from dance not only for medical reasons but also for her mental health. The art form that once brought her such joy was now literally killing her. She still dances but at a limited amount. She willingly pulled herself from the competition team this year realizing it just wasn't healthy for her mentally. When all this happened is when my eyes truly opened and I realized a change in the dance world really needs to happen.
We all know the tall, lean, long legged flexible dancers are usually (not all the time, but usually) the students that win the awards at dance competitions. The costumes get skimpier every year and the comparison game happens the minute the kids walk into the competition for the weekend. The weekends might consist of kids restricting what they are eating because they don’t want to look “bloated” in their costumes? Constantly body checking in the mirrors, and some just not feeling fully confident in the costumes they are wearing. If you really listen to the things they are saying back and forth to each other it’s pretty toxic, not intentional of course, but at this point it has just been normalized.
As teachers we need to start building these kids up, being mindful of what we say in classes. In my own training and watching other teachers teach I have heard various things that I cringe at. I know for most it’s not meant to make anyone feel bad, but I think we all could benefit from taking a moment to think before we speak.
Some examples of what I have heard dance teachers say:
“I wish I had your body.”
This statement shows the dancers in the class that you prefer that particular dancer's body over your own and over the other bodies in the class. It also shows that you yourself think being skinnier or more muscular looks better. We need to teach our students about acceptance of all bodies and self love.
“Suck in your lunch!”
Saying this implies that having food in your stomach (a necessary part of life that we all need to survive) is a bad thing. Instead maybe say “pull up your center” or use terms and phrases that will help the student to activate and engage the muscles that you are hoping for.
“What you are eating isn’t healthy.”
Telling a student this puts a feeling of shame around food. I have seen students hide certain foods around their teachers because of this. Although it may come from a heartfelt place, maybe instead bring in a licensed nutritionist who specializes in dancers, is aware of disordered eating and can talk about the damage diet culture has done to our society. We all have different nutritional needs.
These are just a few examples of the many things I’ve heard as a teacher throughout the years. We need to make changes in the dance industry and it can start in our classes and the way we teach!
Empowered Rx offers a variety of workshops for dancers, teachers and parents. If this is something you think you would be interested in please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org